Tag Archives: religion

My Sin of Snobbery

As you may know, I winter in Montana and summer in Florida.  (“To winter” and “to summer” are used as verbs among a certain set.)  Florida’s southwest gulf coast is beautiful, warm, and old.  Very old.  At 70, I am somewhere around the median age in my neighborhood, whereas in Montana I am the oldest man I know.

I am pleased to see that the churches here in Florida, at least the Catholic ones, are full on Sundays.  During the season (“the season” refers to only one of the four seasons), there are four Sunday masses, packed full.  With old people.  A general absence of crying babies.

Something else is noticeably absent: crucifixes.  I have been to four of this diocese’s churches, and the only ones I have seen are the small ones carried atop a pole in the entry procession.  I went snooping around the cathedral one day after mass, and found a beautiful crucifix sculpture, hidden in a small alcove between chapels, invisible to the congregation.  The ciborium of the host was also not visible, being kept “off-stage” in the wings.

The entire feeling of the services in these churches could only be described as, well… protestant.  Mainline protestant.  The Methodist church of my youth.   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But when I compare my Florida experience with that of my Helena home, I cannot help but focus on what is missing.

Helena is blessed with one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, let alone prayed in.  Its beauty may have spoiled me for other, more modern church architecture.  But that is not the main thing

And it isn’t the crucifix.  One of St. Helena’s few flaws is that the gold crucifix is subsumed (consumed?) by the dazzling gold grillwork reredos behind it.

When I come to church, I am seeking an encounter with holiness, sanctity.  I find it every time I enter St. Helena Cathedral.  But I have not found it once, at least not to any similar extent, in the churches of Florida.

I know how precious the mass has been throughout history and around the world.  I have read of masses celebrated secretly in miserable prisons, in hidden closets and secret forest clearings.  I know that holiness can be found anywhere it is earnestly sought.

In perspective, my quibbles and complaints sound very much like first-world problems, indeed pure snobbery. I come to church with the mind-set of a theater critic. I want every church to meet the standards of my magnificent home cathedral.  I want every priest to have a good voice (or at least a good sound system).  I want a good cantor and good music selections.   (And I wish the bible readings were in better translation.)

Some of this is, as I realize, pure snobbery.  I need to get over it, and to recognize the blessing of having churches to attend and eucharists to receive. 

But some of it may matter a great deal.  In the present war for the soul of the church (and thereby the world), many things must matter.  Crucifixes are not simply a decorator’s choice.


Morality without God

I have often heard the adage that “Morality is what you do when no one is watching.” I now think that is more a definition of immorality.

What got me thinking about all this is that recently I saw Mel Gibson’s movie What Women Want. The plot involves an advertising executive who experiences an electrical accident that somehow leaves him with the ability to hear the internal thoughts – of women. Unsurprisingly, he uses this ability to seduce, steal ideas from, and finally understand women.

My first afterthought was: what would it be like to have this “superhero” power? But then I wondered: what would it be like to know that MY thoughts were being heard?

Morality – moral behavior – has its basis in the sense that someone is always watching my actions and hearing my thoughts. Not just any random person, not a government agency with spy cameras; those breed fear, not morality. Societies that try to enforce all morality with fear end up in totalitarianism or (if they lose their nerve) in anarchic chaos.

No, the watcher/listener must be a loving person, and one who knows us well. It must be God.

Those of us who have lived in both small towns and big cities have noticed the difference in (among other things) drivers’ behavior. The bigger the population, i.e. the more drivers, the ruder their behavior. The reason seems plain. Driving in a big city, you are surrounded by strangers you are unlikely to see again. In a small town, the driver in the next car may be a neighbor, or friend, or even relative. Honking and fingering to show disapproval of their driving may boomerang into a real embarrassment.

We all tend to censor our actions and speech to some extent when dealing with others, but not our thoughts, since they remain private. But what if our thoughts were heard, and by someone who knew us and loved us? Would we not try to learn as a habit not to pursue thoughts that we are ashamed of? Anger, greed, lust, envy…all the Deadly Seven?

If Big Brother were listening, we would be self-censoring out of fear. But if a truly loved and loving one were listening, it would not be fear we would feel, but sadness at causing hurt.  Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets, explains the importance of the Jewish vision that God suffers from our sins.

That is why a loving God, rather than a punishing God, is what wise parents teach and children respond to best.

Atheists reply that they, too, can behave morally, despite the loneliness of existing without watchers/listeners. They rely on an inner conscience which they cannot explain, and on a well-run and affluent society they inherit. They argue that society evolved morality for evolutionary reasons, despite the fact that Darwinian Survival of the Fittest has no place for The Good of the Species.

Morality is the atheists’ stumbling stone.  They know that human society cannot survive without it, and they know that morality not based on a higher authority (religion) seems unattainable for most common folk.  So they are forced to the uneasy conclusion that society must be based on a lie unrecognized by the masses but encouraged by the rulers.   Or, to avoid this ugly conclusion, they take refuge in a theoretical evolution of society in complete contradiction to real evolutionary science.

But the question remains: Can there be morality without God?  Or was Dostoevsky correct, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted?”

Conservatism, the Enlightenments, and Religion

The Enlightenment of the 18th Century was the birth of the movement to articulate a rational basis for society and the freedom of the individual.


The French Enlightenment (Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre)  was directed against the church, seeing religion as mankind’s primary oppressor.  And it took a strongly ideological form from the start, being largely ungrounded in experience of local institutions that actually grew a sense of individual freedom.

The British Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, Smith, Burke) saw its task as the creation of a theoretical framework for the balancing of individual freedom and community interests.  Based on common sense and actual experience of freedom, the British recognized the importance of tradition-buttressed community institutions as the only soil in which freedom can grow.


The common philosophical ground of both Enlightenments was the necessity of basing theory on natural philosophy untethered from religion.   And in this they succeeded, so that the modern western world has broadly accepted as self-evident truth the illegitimacy of any reference to religion in the public square.


The modern-day heirs of the French Enlightenment are on the left, the range of humanist liberals from Democrats to Communists.


The British Enlightenment flame is kept alive by the conservatives and neo-conservatives, from Republicans to …


Liberals and conservatives act and argue as if their principles were well founded.  But they generally avoid discussion that gets too close to core principles, for fear of being asked the inquisitive child’s questions: Why?  Why is every human life sacred?  Why do we each have a right to freedom?  Why shouldn’t I steal?  Who says I shouldn’t?


Push them too hard and they must confront the fact that much, perhaps all of our ethical framework is founded in the leftover remnants of our family and community religion.


The fundamental question is just how long civilized societies can survive when their morality is a shell of a house whose foundations eroded away long ago.


Meanwhile, locked away in an intellectual ghetto, Christians and Conservative Jews continue to argue from biblical principles.  Their house alone seems to be built on solid foundations.  Biblical principles may be mistaken, of course.  But they provide a basis.  What about the rest of us?

Leszek Kolakowski Remembered

One of the greatest of modern thinkers passed away 2 years ago this month.  Leszek Kolakowski was rightly known for his searing critique of Communism, embodied in his magisterial 1978 survey, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism.  The 20th century had crushed his every favorable illusion about Communism (as it did for virtually every other Pole).  He exposed the ugly philosophical reality of Marxism as thoroughly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed its hideous physical reality.  With Main Currents and Gulag Archipelago on a bookshelf, and only The Black Book of Communism between them, no library really needs another volume on the subject.

He was a fine prose stylist, with a vein of incisive wit. Here is his summary of the “New Left”:

“While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-69, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoiled middle class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for many decades.  In this sense, it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.” (Main Currents, vol. 3, p. 490)

Kolakowski lived long enough (he was 92) to be recognized for his brilliant contribution to the debunking of Communism.  The eulogies from Roger Kimball (New Criterions) and Christopher Hitchens (Slate) (among many others) make the point well.

But in his later years, LK made equally brilliant contributions to the understanding of liberal, secular modernity’s crippling of our civilization.  In books like Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), he made clear the extent to which a post-religious world is incapable of sustaining moral standards.  He understood the magnitude of failure that resulted from what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the Enlightenment project of providing a rational vindication of morality” and “the secularization of morality” (After Virtue, 1981).   LK realized that without religion, morality, human rights, human dignity, and therefore civilization itself were all unsustainable.  They are edifices built on eroded Judeo-Christian foundations, waiting to be knocked down by the next strong wind.

Although he was able to see the dead end inherent in secular society, LK was not himself able to embrace what he knew to be the only solution: religious revival.  But religion does not exist because it is effective; it exists because believers have faith in God.  Faith in the power of religion is no substitute for religion.  (He states this beautifully in Modernity on Endless Trial, but I don’t have my copy handy to quote it.)

And he as much as stated that he himself could not embrace faith itself; he was not a believer.   So, like many of us, he must have stared into the abyss with a sense of profound sadness and pessimism.